For the longest time, I have been telling people that the first Thanksgiving happened in San Elizario, Texas, rather than Plymouth Rock. Then, about a year ago, I took someone out to see the first El Paso County Jail, and we bumped into the President of the San Elizario Genealogy and Historical Society, Al Borrego.
Borrego is also, a Commissioner on the El Paso County Historical Commission, as well as the Landmark Commissioner for the City of San Elizario. He is a font of knowledge when it comes to San Elizario.
When we ran into him a year ago, I asked him to explain to my friend how the first Thanksgiving took place. Little did I know I have had my history wrong.
For years I thought that Don Juan De Onate and his band of explorers had trudged through the Mexican desert, arrived at San Elizario and encountered the First Peoples then celebrated. Both sides came together, long before the Pilgrims arrived, and they ate and invented football (well, not football, per se).
In believing this narrative, I had forgotten about other, much older cities, like St Augustine in Florida.
So, where did the idea of the First Thanksgiving being in San Elizario come from?
“It all started in 1989 probably a little bit earlier. But in 1989, they created, if I got the date right, but around that time they created the El Paso Mission Trail Association,” said Borrego. “They also created the El Paso Mission Trail.”
The City and County of El Paso, with the help of some marketing firm, came up with the idea to market tourism to the El Paso area.
Growing up in El Paso, I can recall the empty stretches of land between Socorro, Clint, San Elizario, and Fabens. I can remember going to Hideaway Lakes to fish and feeling like we were travelling across the entire state of Texas. It was an adventure back in the late 70s and early 80s.
Imagine you are elected to City Council as a County Commissioner and need to come up with a way to bring tourism dollars to a county that is 200 square miles smaller than the state of Rhode Island (El Paso County is 1015 sq. miles while Rhode Island is 1,212 sq. miles). What do you do?
“It’s not like the mission trail started in 1598 when the Spaniards came in,” said Borrego. “That’s a new term that was brought in. And in my personal opinion, it was started to market tourism here in the El Paso area.”
When Onate and those with him made it to the river, there was a celebration.
“The basic concept of the first Thanksgiving, as far as the mission trail association goes, the way we promoted it for five years, or at least I did for sure,” Borrego continued, “was that the Onate expedition, when they came North from Santa Barbara in the Southern part of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. When he started with his expedition, they came up, they came through the desert, they were dying of thirst. They were hungry, and they finally got to the river. They got to the river, and they have a big feast because this is in the archives. They had a sermon. They had an ecclesiastical celebration. They had a feast. They had, in the afternoon, they had a comedy. That’s what happened.”
They are all hot, tired, hungry, in bad need of water. They arrive at San Elizario, meet the First Peoples and have a celebration. During this part of my conversation with Borrego, I think a sort of Thanksgiving celebration did happen, maybe not the first, but it happened. They did arrive in San Elizario twenty-two years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
But, did they share that ecclesiastical celebration with any of the First Peoples in the area?
“The key elements of Thanksgiving (are) the Pilgrim and then the Turkey,” said Borrego. “So those are the key elements of Thanksgiving that we learned to know throughout the years. So that’s when we run into a problem here in San Elizario, and this is strictly from the archives of the scribe for the Onate expedition. If you leave out a bunch of this stuff, you can create the image that it was here, but it wasn’t. That’s not exactly the way it happened.”
Borrego explained that the journey Onate took skirted an area of Mexico because they didn’t want to encounter the tribes that were there. Already others had disappeared in the same area and Onate didn’t want to make the same mistake. I would have done the same thing in his place.
“See, when the expedition was coming North, you would think they’re going to go through the Samalayuca Desert,” said Borrego. “Well, there was an issue with the expedition because at Laguna De Los Patos. If you look on the map between Chihuahua and El Paso, Laguna De Los Patos is there, and that’s where the Onate expedition made a right-hand turn toward the river, an extra nine miles. I believe it was to get to what we call the Pass to the North. They didn’t go through the desert. They cut through and they, they skirted the dunes, the entrance to the dunes.”
You’re trudging through the desert with livestock, a hand full of soldiers, well-to-do families with wagons full of goods, and you’ve just added ninety miles to your journey. You’re wanting to colonise the area and may not have known to collect extra water or food along the way. You’ve run out. You’re thirsty and hungry. Then, you see a river.
“On April the 20th where does he hit the river? He hits in a little town that’s still there today called Praxedis Guerrero. It’s right there, South of Tornillo, Texas. If you look on the map, you’ll notice it’s right at the County lakes, over there between El Paso and Hudspeth County. If you look at that and you look at where the old river was, because if you remember the river was East of San Elizario back then,” said Borrego. “If you look at the old river, that’s where the river connected to where it is today, right there at the lakes. And they started skirting the sandhills, right there where the railroad is today and into towards Tornillo and it came all the way up, and you can look at where the old river hit.”
The expedition had 539 people. Nine of them were Franciscans, 120 were soldiers, while the rest of them were complete families — each of them with dreams of setting up in New Mexico.
The expedition skirted the area where the tribes were in what is modern-day Mexico, came up to the area of Tornillo and San Eli, saw the river, and knew they were saved. They stopped, had a celebration because they made it to water and were getting closer to their destination. So, when did the Onate expedition finally meet a member of any tribe? What exactly happened on April 30th, after the Onate expedition was here?
“On April the 30th 1598, he does the act of possession,” said Borrego of what Onate did in San Elizario. “Now the archives continue. On the very next day, on May the first, they continued up the river, because remember they come in up the river now on May the first. They travelled to luges, which is roughly six miles. That puts them more or less where Socorro is today. Then it says on May the second we travelled a league and a half, about four and a half miles. That puts them more or less where Ysleta Mission is today.”
“Then it says on May the third, which is where they really messed up in 1989 and didn’t continue reading the expedition because they found what they wanted to hear on April the thirtieth. But on May the third they continued another two leagues, another six miles, more or less. I’d say [they] were where Hidden Valley was. It says this on this day, May the third going up the river, on this day we met the first Indians on the river. Two were brought to the camp by the Sargento Mayor.”
When the Sergeant Major brought them into the camp, they were clothed and fed. Gifts were given, and I’m sure some level of communication was attempted. Then, they left. Later that same day, eight more arrived at the Onate camp.
So, if Thanksgiving has the elements of travel, food, celebration, and someone from one of the tribes in attendance, the idea of the first Thanksgiving at San Elizario fails. On April 30th, we have the Act of Possession or Toma. Then, days later, we have the first meeting between the Spanish and the First Peoples in our region.
I can read your mind. Why does this even matter? Let me tell you.
The City and County of El Paso hit upon an idea that would bring more people to the area, and those people would spend money on hotel rooms, food, all the normal things tourists would spend on. But did it work?
In the end, after the trip the City/County made to Plymouth to put on a show about the first Thanksgiving being in El Paso, after all the ad time bought, I think we’ve forgotten something, to celebrate who we are.
San Elizario is a unique community full of rich and vibrant history. We celebrate a reenactment of the Toma each year. We reenact Billy the Kid breaking his friend out of the first El Paso County Jail, and we have so much to be proud of. Let’s celebrate that.
Two quotes, from my conversation with Al Borrego really stand out and cause me to encourage you to listen to the whole of our conversation (technical difficulties aside). The first: “If you don’t talk about what happened, then you’ll have to talk about what did happen. The wiping out of all the Natives from Plymouth to the Spanish. The winner always writes the history.”
There are two distinct parts to our nation’s history when it comes to the Natives, the Frist Peoples. In states where the English took possession, there are no reservations. In the Spanish controlled lands, there are reservations and preservation, to a degree, of the early history of these peoples.
Then, his final words: “Really look into history, look into your history, know who you are. If you don’t know who, where you come from, you don’t know who you are.”
Even today there are those that insist the first Thanksgiving was here, in San Elizario. Let’s look at our individual family and collective history and celebrate that today, rather than what heralded the wholesale slaughter and destruction of civilisations that were already here.
Do take the time to listen to the audio at the top of this article, or download it from SoundCloud below:
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